In 1944 war-torn Spain, young Ofelia and her sickly mother arrive at a military post ran by her new stepfather, a sadistic military officer charged with quelling a guerilla uprising. Armed with little more than her imagination to combat the cruelties of reality, Ofelia discovers a mysterious maze and encounters a faun, who tells the young girl she is a long lost princess. The faun sets Ofelia onto a dangerous quest in order to claim immortality and save her dying mother. Soon the lines between fantasy and reality blur and Ofelia must face off against the forces of evil that threaten her world.
Today marks the ten year anniversary of Pan’s Labyrinth, the pinnacle of Guillermo Del Toro’s filmmaking career. It’s the film he is most proud of and stands as his ultimate statement as a creator. At the time, Del Toro was being offered huge movies, but the filmmaker chose to redefine his career as an artist. He has stated many times that he needed to make this film.
Any artist understands that indescribable pull of the imagination, where the mental need to create manifest itself into physical and spiritual needs. Although he was offered dump trucks of money to direct films in the X-Men and Men In Black franchises, Del Toro chose financial hardships in order to cleanse himself of these needs.
The film has that undeniable blend of fantasy and horror that has become a signature of Del Toro films. Part of what makes this film so great is the ambiguity. Del Toro leaves it up to the audience to judge whether or not all the fantasy elements are real or just part of Ofelia’s imagination. He also refuses to sugarcoat the horrors illustrated in many fairy tales, unlike most modern fantasy films.
Many fairy tales have a literary history of subjecting children to horrifying circumstances and tragic ends. Studio films tend to shy away from those historical truths because there is a significant business risk in showing children being brutally murdered. Del Toro refuses to pull any punches with this foreign indie darling, subjecting Ofelia to traumas that would scare any adult.
In true Del Toro fashion, nothing in this film is accidental. Every detail of every frame is used to further draw you into the film’s world. Every stone has a story to tell, motifs evident in furniture have a relation with the narrative, and the sets embody the character’s who live in them. The characters themselves are just as interesting as the world around them. Ofelia, our protagonist, is our Alice in this twisted Wonderland.
Her fate is interwoven with the monstrous Captain Vidal, who is obsessed with his legacy and forever trapped inside his father’s watch. Del Toro’s message about death is clear. Vidal, who destroys everything he touches, fails to attain the piece of immortality he so desperately seeks; while Ofelia, who is pure of heart, attains a kind of immortality through her tragic sacrifice.
“And it is said that the Princess returned to her father’s kingdom. That she reigned there with justice and a kind heart for many centuries. That she was loved by her people. And that she left behind small traces of her time on Earth, visible only to those who know where to look.”
Pan’s Labyrinth also features excellent creature work, a staple of Del Toro films. However, there are two standouts: the faun and the haunting Pale Man. Both are brought to life through the elegant physical acting of Doug Jones. Although Del Toro knew he would have to pay Jones more than a less prolific actor, Jones was the only one he trusted to bring his creations to life.
The faun is both charming and sinister, always courting Ofelia with a false smile. His ancient form jerks as his body of moss, stone, and ancient wood creaks with the hardships of time. There is no question that he is an eldritch being of the forest. Then there’s his performance as the Pale Man, a being who delights in feasting on lost children. With flesh drooping grotesquely from his bones, hands ridden with stigmata, and an eyeless face, he is an instant terror. As he plugs his stigmata with hungry eyes and chases Ofelia through his lair, you are transported back to your childhood nightmares, when all manner of evil lived under your bed.